My experience in attending retreats is that the lectures are good and the testimonies are great. Much faith building happens between the scripted talks.
I was late to enter the dining room and had to plug in at the one table that had a vacancy, a circle of people I hardly knew. One was Rita, who regaled us with tales of her immigration from Peru. In the first month her little girl kept pointing to people eating McDonald's hamburgers and asking to have one. Rita, not yet employed, denied the request. One day a total stranger walked up to them with two bags of Mickey D's and said, "Would you like one? I don't even know why I bought it."
That daughter is 18 now and away in college. Rita told us her daughter's faith is strong and that she is the one who often challenges her to stop worrying and complaining and to simply trust the Lord to meet her needs. Then the rest of the backstory emerges.
When Rita had first set foot in the States 13 years ago, she knelt down right there in the airport and dedicated her daughter to the Lord. "People were looking at me," she recalled. The following years were not all smooth-sailing, and at one point the daughter asked her mother for permission to stop going to church. Rita denied permission. Years later, Rita's daughter told her mom that refusing to let her have her own way was the best thing she could have done for her.
The seed was planted in our minds at the dining room table: It is a good thing to dedicate our children to the Lord. Also, it is a good thing to not fear men.
There were other testimonies over turkey wraps as well. Suzanne said she found the $20 for the retreat registration in a clothes dryer at a Laundromat. Evelyn told how she had been embarrassed to come to the retreat with threadbare jeans, but had finally committed the matter to the Lord. When she arrived in her bunkhouse, her roommate offered her, unsolicited, a nice pair of jeans that didn't fit well. They fit Evelyn just fine.
Lois told us about the time she had been falsely accused of child abuse in the daycare center where she worked, and how God had unraveled the plot and delivered her. Evelyn loves kids and is working again and even on her days off sometimes calls in to check on her babies.
What is it about testimonies? I think it is that a testimony expands one's own experience of God by as many people as one meets who have one. A testimony is concrete evidence of "God things" in the lives of real individuals who live in our own times. This is why testimonies thrill us and make faith rise. A testimony is a reminder that our God is a living God, and that Scripture is not, to quote Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, merely a "quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore."